There has always been a certain romance about airships. Sleek and pure with their silhouettes dancing across meadow or ridge – they are poetry in motion. An everlasting icon of freedom, they speak of swashbuckling adventure, daring innovation, brave exploration – and not a little bit of danger. And now, thanks to Euro gaming, they can also be about…Victory Points!
How it Plays
In Fantasy Frontier, you command an airship in which to explore and shape a new world, gather resources to claim land, and attack your rivals. All of these adventures earn victory points, which you can just interpret as general fame, swagger, and daring-do as befitting a proper airship captain.
The design blends a few well known mechanics. The bulk of activity is driven by action point allowance, in the guise of worker placement. Each turn, you assign five crew members to various tasks around your airship, which grant actions. However, it’s not really true worker placement, because there is no competition over any communal spaces. Players simply use meeples to select actions on their individual boards. Meanwhile, you achieve scores through a mixture of resource collection, pattern-building tile-laying, and direct interaction.
To begin the game, players choose an airship from one of the four unique factions. Not only do the styles look a tad different, but each has a special benefit. So, if you automatically always play with red, you might want to reconsider. Unless, of course, you’re happy with that faction’s better armament. But if you’d like to build townships easier, then you may want to play with blue, instead. Everyone then creates the initial map with two terrain tiles apiece, places their ship on one of them (no sharing), and gets a map card.
On a turn, you assign five crew members – a.k.a., meeples – to various tasks about your ship. Most actions have multiple locations, but there is one job you may only perform once per turn, and two duties require multiple workers. After placing all of your meeples, you then resolve those functions. The trick is that particular actions are resolved in one of three phases. You may execute tasks in any order you wish within each phase. However, you must complete all Phase 1 actions before moving to Phase 2, and so on with Phase 3.
Before undertaking any actions, you must first place any terrain tiles to the map which you collected in the previous turn. Phase 1 actions include piloting the ship 1-3 terrain hexes, attacking an opponent in an adjacent space, or repairing damage from previous scuffles. Piloting may only be performed once per turn. You can also blast ground, which catastrophically removes an adjacent terrain tile and requires three crew members – one to destroy the land and two to fight off a vengeful Al Gore. At any point during phase 1, you may also consume food and/or play a development card (more on both later), which are not official actions in that they don’t require workers.
To attack an opponent, simply fly alongside his ship, declare your intentions with a pithy insult, and roll a die. If you roll higher than its defense, which equates to the number of crew currently aboard her, you score one hit. You may mark any location therein with a damage token, or instead remove one resource within her cargo holds. Talk about pinpoint precision! If you have more than one crew member assigned to attack (each ship has five guns), you may take multiple shots at the same vessel or different adjacent targets. Or alternately, you can employ a focused attack, adding +1 to a roll’s result per extra cannoneer you wish to expend. For each successful hit, you also score 1 victory point.
Phase 2 is where you collect and build – and may also consume food and play a development card. Both actions involve deploying crew members to away teams – which does not bode well for the red player. When deployed, workers can occupy tiles underneath airships – friendly or not – but may not share terrain already occupied by other workers or townships. You collect resources based on which terrain type your meeple occupies. Plains tiles grant one turkey – yes, turkey. For the other types, you roll their corresponding resource dice. Forest terrain may net you wood and/or turkey; mountains may yield a stone and/or gold; lakes might produce fish and/or gold. It’s also possible to roll zilch and end up with nothing.
To build a township, you must assign 4 workers to the project (deploy action). These settlements may only be constructed on plains, require 2 each of wood, stone, and gold, and are worth 10 points. When built, they are permanent.
The other two resources – turkey and fish – are used to manipulate game mechanics. You may expend a turkey leg to re-roll one of your resource or attack results; to discard and redraw a terrain tile; or to discard and redraw a research card. Fish allow you to reassign a spent worker to another task that turn. However, you must still obey the phase order so that any such re-assignment occurs in the same phase or a later one. Plus, you may not use fish during Phase 3.
Phase 3 actions include researching and scouting. Through research, you draw a card for each worker assigned to the task, which will either be a development card providing a special ability, or more likely a map card with a terrain pattern. During play, if you can match the pattern with existing tiles on the map or by adding to it later, you may navigate there and score the card – anywhere between 4-7 points. You add to the map and create those patterns via scouting. For each meeple scouting, you draw two terrain tiles from the bag. However, you keep those and contemplate on them until the start of your next turn, when you are then required to add them to the map.
The first player to earn 40 points between combat victories, townships, and successfully completing map cards wins. I’m not sure what, exactly. Hopefully it involves some confounded contraption, infernal invention, or at least a snazzy pair of goggles…because you know, airships.
Taking Flight or Staying Grounded?
While you may lose a resource or suffer damage here and there, there are still a few things chiseled in granite in Fantasy Frontier. When you build a township, it cannot be destroyed or captured. Map cards are permanent once claimed. Development cards are never stolen or lost. In short, when you make progress, it stays – and you never have to worry about losing points. Along the way, however, there are plenty of random elements to create a little turbulence.
Personally, I like randomness and have sung its praises before. To be fair to those who might not, there is a healthy measure of it in Fantasy Frontier. Your tolerance for those rough rides of chance will largely depend on your personal tastes for luck in gaming. There are never any critical, individual instances in which a bad roll or draw makes or breaks the game. On the average, you may experience some pangs of frustration if particular trends tend to dog your turns – or favor an opponent’s. Even though there are a few more instances of it, I’d say the overall effect of luck on game play is similar to that in Settlers of Catan.
Plus, as in any good Euro-style design with healthy doses of chance, there is a mechanic to alleviate it somewhat – the terrific turkey tokens. One aspect to these mitigaters that I appreciate is you can get them free by sending workers to plains tiles. While the other four resource types are dependent on a die roll, at least turkey avoids a “double whammy” – that is, having the chance of gaining something with which to mitigate the chance.
Many gamers who decry luck do so because they think it derails their strategy. I certainly can’t argue with that sentiment, but I also tend to think that randomness enhances planning because there are more variables and intangibles to try and account for. And while Fantasy Frontier contains its fair share of luck, there is also a need for careful planning. The consume food mechanic can be a particularly cunning one in extending your turn and achieving some bonus actions. But using fish takes a bit of forethought, since it must be expended in the same, or a later, phase in which it is consumed. While you have the flexibility to resolve jobs in any order within a phase, you must still adhere to the strict order of the three phases overall. Plotting attacks at just the right moment is also important to your planning.
The manner of interaction is very appropriate for the design’s weight and scope. It’s not really deleterious, but you don’t want to overlook it, either. The greatest damage per attack is the loss of a resource. That can be irksome, as collecting a new one depends on a die roll, but it’s never terribly harmful until the endgame when time is short. As for ship damage, the only crippling hits would be to the pilot’s wheel or blasting station, as you would need to exact repairs before having access to them again. All other tasks have multiple spots. Unless you sustain a bevy of barrages from a belching broadside – well, no one said the life of adventure was easy.
Instead, combat proves a fun way to provide player-to-player engagement, while rewarding you with some points. However, you don’t earn a ton of them, so the system discourages unmitigated, pell-mell, spiteful attacks. On top of that, the more you fight, the fewer crew you have to accomplish other tasks. I also like that it’s not a blatant catch-up mechanism. If you’re appreciably behind, combat is too insignificant to aid your cause much. However, in close games, you just might be able to take out that sixth resource an opponent needs to build a township. Of course, the success of your assault depends on the dice – so you may be cursing your luck then.
Interestingly, a lot of attacks seem to stem from “targets of opportunity.” Since an airship’s defense value equals the number of meeples aboard her, many players will wait to attack when the enemy is deployed, with her defenses lowered. It’s quite the piratical concept, really – attack only when the odds are in your favor. This creates a delicate balance in planning. You have to gather resources, but that leaves you vulnerable to attack. And building townships requires four airmen to deploy, leaving you particularly exposed with a skeleton crew of one! I believe I am attacked roughly 95% of the time immediately after constructing a settlement. The good news is that you usually don’t have any resources to lose, since you’ve just spent them all to build your town (turkey and fish notwithstanding), and you get the 10 victory points. So stop complaining.
Fantasy Frontier has enough moving gears that it’s a little beyond newcomers to the hobby, but would be great for that next level gamer. There are icons to remember, and the phased action selection takes some time to grok. However, it only takes a few turns to grasp for moderately experienced gamers, thanks to the intuitively well-designed player boards. Each task location icon on the airships is designated by phase with either one, two, or three dots. This makes it simple to recognize at a glance when each job is resolved. It’s a simple design that is extremely effective and practical. The icons themselves make sense, too, for the most part.
The timing of the game will vary quite significantly from session to session, depending on number of players and their personal styles. For gamers who prefer a more peaceful cruise around this world, non-confrontational games will move quicker. Plus the time gap between 2- and 4-player games is one of the widest that I’ve experienced in the hobby. Two players can easily knock-out a session in 30-45 minutes while a full compliment can easily push an hour and a half – and feel every bit of it.
Three-player games really hit the sweet spot. It offers a satisfying length without going overly long. Game play does get repetitive after a while, so longer 4-player tilts may drag a bit. Also, keep in mind, each player resolves all of his/her five workers (and maybe more) before moving on to the next player. These tasks may be quick individually, but there are still five of them in a row. Plus, when players have terrain tiles to place, the game often screeches to a halt as everyone is examining and rotating their map cards, twisting their heads to double-check the map, to try and create the patterns designated upon them. The design hopes to alleviate this issue somewhat by making players wait until their next turn to place them. That way, they can use their off-turn to plan. It doesn’t always work so neatly, however, as opponents add to the map in the meantime, often messing with a particular area that you were just about to complete in hopes of scoring! So in addition to time, four players also add a bit more chaos – though that may sit just right with some people.
The components are really nice. The airship tokens are each unique – they are well cut, cool to look at, and fun to manipulate. The resource tokens are customized to resemble what they represent – which makes them fun and helpful. And the illustrations, where present, are outstanding. It could stand for a lot more. As long as you can get by with townships that look kind of like butterflies, everything makes sense and is very good quality. Gamelyn Games has began its publishing life with a nice little track record.
Despite the skilled design, wonderful bits, and pleasant artwork, the theme is rather flat. Which is indeed unfortunate, as fantasy/steampunk airship games are few and far between. Yes, there has been a small spike in the genre of recent, but there is still room for some good additions. The design does have a brief back story about a divided nation inventing airships to search for new lands and opportunities, only to find that conflict follows them amongst the clouds. But as you actually play, you often feel as if you’re simply “going through the motions.” You go to this terrain to get that resource to add to your set in order to build a town eventually. While resource collection and building certainly fit the design’s fluff, it’s too basic to resonate with that narrative. The terrain pattern matching might represent a search for favorable land, but it’s so random to be contrived. So while the mechanics work and create interesting game play and meaningful decisions, theme-wise there seems very little logical reasoning or point to the actions you undertake.
Fantasy Frontier is a solid, family-friendly design with a mix of luck and strategy. The doses of randomness are never during critically deciding moments. Therefore, it’s not really a pro or a con, but rather a design element that you’ll need to judge for yourself based on personal taste and tolerance. It’s thematically aloof, if you’re looking for an airship game. That’s a bit unfortunate when new designs really need something extra special to stand out amongst the glut of titles produced in this day and age. But it does offer an interesting mixture of tile-laying and resource collection, which creates smart plays and tight decisions. It really shines with 3 players and would actually be a great “next step” game. With variability, unpredictability, and fun interaction, Fantasy Frontier provides clear, blue skies for the casual, middle-weight crowd.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Gamelyn Games, for providing a review copy of Fantasy Flight.